Anticipating the exceptional

Gary Hart Photography: Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
1/50 second
ISO 100

No one denies that an image records a single, unrepeatable instant. But just as each instant is the culmination of a series of connected preceding events, most images have their own history that can be traced backward, often months or years before the shutter clicked. The moon didn’t just materialize above Half Dome that evening, and a moonbow isn’t just some random event at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall—their appearance can be directly connected to celestial dance that was set in motion with the birth of our Solar System, and can be predicted with surgical precision (minus a few wild card variables like weather and water flow to keep photographers from getting too cocky).

Photographers spend a great deal of time trying to anticipate instants like these. We start with the common-knowledge stuff, things like the February sunset light on Horsetail Fall, a shaft of summer light slanting in Upper Antelope Canyon, or a moonbow in the spring mist billowing beneath Lower Yosemite Fall. But the precision of the celestial choreography that delivers light shafts to slot canyons and moonbows to waterfalls is just as predictable for anonymous hidden trees, lakes, and peaks. Iconic or undiscovered, each of these spectacles are the convergence of location and predictable natural processes just waiting to be appreciated (and photographed!).

Image planning isn’t limited to the sun, moon, and stars. Understanding and monitoring a favorite location’s weather can put you in the right place, with the best chance to add a rainbow, lightning bolt, or fresh snow. And simply finding a complementary foreground/background alignment that connects two or more terrestrial subjects can elevate an image to the next level.

Rather than a fortuitous right-place, right-time convergence, the creative aspect of many images starts long before capture. When I find a new location, or identify a potential subject, my brain immediately starts spinning on the ways I can make it better. Can I align it with another foreground or background subject? What natural phenomena will take the scene to the next level, and how I can be there when it happens?

For example…

Bridalveil Dogwood, Yosemite

Bridalveil Dogwood, Valley View, Yosemite

Before capturing my image of a raindrop-festooned dogwood flower with Bridalveil Fall in the background, I had long visualized a scene somewhere in Yosemite that featured a dogwood bloom aligned with a soft-focus but recognizable Yosemite landmark. I knew I’d need overcast skies that would illuminate the entire scene with diffuse, soft light, then filed my vision away until the next time the forecast predicted clouds during the short window the dogwood bloom in Yosemite.

On my drive to the park, I started mentally working on locations where I might be able to align a dogwood with a recognizable Yosemite subject, the lens I’d use, the amount of background sharpness I wanted, and so on. Once I was in the valley, I was able to conduct a pretty orderly search that eventually led me to this flower near Valley View.

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Sometimes bringing my ideas to fruition requires a lot more research, planning, and patience. I’ll start with a scene that appeals to me, then mentally add something that I think will take it to the next level. A moon? Stars? A rainbow? Lightning? Fresh snow? Maybe all of the above (so far not at the same time, sadly).

The moon and stars are a relatively straightforward matter of plotting angles and timing (and hoping the weather cooperates). On the other hand, weather phenomena, such as rainbows, lightning, and snow, require an understanding of the processes behind them, careful and persistent monitoring of long- and short-term weather forecasts (only the National Weather Service for me), and a lot patience while waiting for the moment to arrive. Then, when the moment does arrive, I need to move quickly and not allow myself to be swayed by fear of failure (always a distinct possibility).

For example…

Double Rainbow, Yosemite Valley

Double Rainbow, Tunnel View, Yosemite

I’d long fantasized about adding a rainbow arcing over Yosemite Valley to the already breathtaking Tunnel View scene. And being a lover of rainbows and a photographer, I’d long ago taken the time to become extremely aware of the why, where, and when of rainbows. Which is how, on a spring afternoon a few years ago, I was in perfect position when my rainbow fantasy came true.

I was in Yosemite to meet customers for dinner, and to plan the next day’s guided tour of the park. But when my mostly sunny drive up the Merced River Canyon turned to rain as I entered Yosemite Valley, my mental wheels started turning—Yosemite weather almost always moves west-to-east, which meant soon Yosemite Valley would have rain on the east side and sunlight low on the western horizon. It wasn’t hard to rearrange my customers’ priorities, and this was our reward.

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Celestial phenomena are wonderfully predictable, so much so that I make very few non-spontaneous photo trips without factoring in the moon and/or Milky Way. (My spontaneous trips are usually spurred by the weather forecast.) And there are few locations I photograph that I can’t tell you the altitude and azimuth necessary to align a the sun, moon, or Milky Way with the location’s most prominent feature.

Hawaii, Death Valley, Mono Lake, Alabama Hills (Mt. Whitney), plus many personal favorite subjects near home—I know exactly where I want to be and when I want to be there, and do my best to make it happen, sometimes planning several years in advance. In Yosemite my terrestrial subject is usually Half Dome, and and my celestial subject is usually a rising moon. And depending the direction of the moon’s arrival, I have an array of locations that I know will align with the moon’s appearance.

For example…

Crescent Moon, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Rising Crescent, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite

Tunnel View is my favorite location for photographing a Yosemite moonrise, but it’s not my only location. Across the Merced River Canyon on Big Oak Flat Road is Half Dome View, a turnout vista with a slightly different, less popular view of Half Dome and El Capitan.

From Half Dome View, the visual distance separating the two monoliths is quite narrow, meaning an extremely small margin of error for a photographer hoping to catch the moon splitting the gap. But the idea had always intrigued me, so I went to work with my plotting method (I do it manually using topo maps, moonrise tables, and an HP-11C scientific calculator that does trig functions).

When I discovered that a crescent moon would indeed split this gap before sunrise on a certain May morning in about a year, I started a plan of attack. Despite the fact that I’d never photographed a moonrise from this location, and even the slightest error in computation would foil the attempt, I went ahead and scheduled a workshop for this date. Try to imagine my anxiety as the day approached and the realization that failure wouldn’t just impact me, it would impact my entire group, really started to sink in. And imagine my euphoria (not to mention everyone with me) that morning when the moon slid into the gap, right on schedule.

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When photography’s less than ideal, I might leave the camera in my bag, but I don’t stop being a photographer. I spend a lot of non-camera time scouting locations, looking for complementary subjects that I can align with the grand scene. If my primary subject is in the foreground, I add move around until I can align it with a complementary background. And when my subject is in the distance (like Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills, or Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View), I spend a lot of time exploring the nearby terrain in search of subjects I can align with the grand primary scene.

When I find a subject that merits something exceptional, I try to wait until I can enhance it with similarly exceptional natural phenomenon.

For example…

Gary Hart Photography: Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

Morning Glory, Sunrise Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley

When I “discovered” this tree, it was love at first sight. But rather than photograph it in the more conventional quality light conditions that are fairly easy to anticipate, or wait for one of Yosemite’s inevitable exceptional but fairly regular moments, I saved my discovery for something truly extraordinary. And, after about ten years of waiting for location, light, conditions, and circumstances (this spot is too small and dangerous for a group), extraordinary finally happened this April.

Anticipating snow, I’d traveled to Yosemite the previous afternoon. A little snow had fallen earlier that day, and while the storm had passed, its cloudy vestiges lingered overhead and in the valley below. While not the winter wonderland I’d hoped for, there was enough snow still hugging the trees that I found some very nice images. Nice enough, in fact, that I’d have been completely satisfied with my captures if my trip had ended right then. But I wasn’t done.

Because more snow was promised overnight, I got a room nearby and returned the next morning. I wasn’t too far into my drive back into the park before it became clear that I was in for something special. The snow had just stopped, and while there wasn’t a lot of snow, the air was cold enough that I knew until the morning sunlight made it all the way down into Yosemite Valley, everything would remain in a state of suspended animation. And the clouds that had deposited the snow were doing their typical slow-clear dance on the valley floor.

I first stopped at a spot along the Merced River and photographed dogwood and El Capitan. I got so caught up in that scene that I lost track of the time and didn’t give myself a lot of time for my next stop, up the hill at “my” tree (that I often check but rarely photograph). I also realized that given the light snowfall on the valley floor, I’d severely underestimated the amount of snow that had fallen just a few hundred feet up the hill from Yosemite Valley.

I found an entire world covered with white, and the sun about ready to pop up over Sentinel Dome—once the sun arrived, I’d only have about 60 seconds of quality photography before the sun overpowered the scene. I quickly grabbed my gear and scrambled up to the tree. Fortunately, I’d photographed here the previous afternoon, so I didn’t really have to hunt for a composition (generally a fairly painstaking, trial-and-error process). With the sun about to appear, I knew I’d need to do a sunstar and set my aperture accordingly. Without a lot of time to play with the exposure, I made the snap judgement to spare the highlights and hope I could recover the shadows laters, and click.

This image was literally the first click I made of the scene this morning—subsequent captures showed increasingly blown highlights as the sun rose into the scene. On my LCD this image looked severely underexposed, but I trusted the histogram on my a7R, which indicated there was indeed detail in the shadows. (Yes, I know I could have accomplished it by bracketing and blending multiple exposures, but I’m a one-click guy.) And when I finally found the courage to process the image, I held my breath as I grabbed the Lightroom Shadows slider and watched my scene appear.

A gallery of “planned” images

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

3 Comments on “Anticipating the exceptional

  1. Gary- Your July photo is exquisite, but merely in keeping with your usual standards. However, please tell me you haven’t crossed over to the “dark side”of HDR.
    Your student- Dave Snyder, Boca Raton, Fl

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